tue 29/09/2020

Tahar Ben Jelloun: The Punishment review - triumph over torture | reviews, news & interviews

Tahar Ben Jelloun: The Punishment review - triumph over torture

Tahar Ben Jelloun: The Punishment review - triumph over torture

Deep insight into the mechanisms of power

Tahar Ben Jelloun Photo by by F. Mantovani © Gallimard

In July 1966, Tahar Ben Jelloun’s life changed. As punishment for participating in a peaceful student demonstration against the authoritarian King Hassan II of Morocco, he was detained and sent to a military encampment at El Hajeb, “a village where there are only soldiers,” to undergo military training.

In July 1966, Tahar Ben Jelloun’s life changed. As punishment for participating in a peaceful student demonstration against the authoritarian King Hassan II of Morocco, he was detained and sent to a military encampment at El Hajeb, “a village where there are only soldiers,” to undergo military training.

For the next year and a half, Ben Jelloun, a leftist political prisoner and supposed military recruit, served time in a prison camp. There he, along with other political prisoners, was subjected to conditions marked by “savagery, stupidity, and degradation”. The toll was physical and psychological. At the time, Morocco had “no institution of military conscription”; it was “impossible to envision any specific release date for us,” he writes.

As a detainee stripped of the power to decide his destiny, Ben Jelloun’s experiences in the camp oscillated between inhuman treatment and serendipitous instances of compassion – almost wholly determined by other people.

At the one pole: the sadistic pairing of Camp Commandant Ababou and his deputy Chief Warrant Officer Akka who ran El Hajeb. In The Punishment, Ben Jalloun’s memoir of this time, the malignant, controlling Akka is present from the moment he sets foot in the camp. Ababou, by contrast, is a shadowy, senior figure who first appears through the order that “an absolutely useless wall” be built three miles to the north of the camp. Up to sixty-five pounds' worth of stones are hauled by each detainee through the hottest part of the day; those who stumble are mercilessly thrashed. As soon as the wall is complete, Ababou orders it to be torn down and the rocks carried back to camp.

It’s Sisyphus’s hell made real, something not lost on Ben Jelloun who counts Camus among  literary heroes including "Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Kafka, Victor Hugo..." Yet it is nothing compared to the later manoeuvres in which real bullets are used. At the end of the exercise, Akka addresses the full camp: “‘The maneuvres were a success. Only five wounded and three dead. But there are no wounded’ (he hammers out these words), ‘there are no dead.’” Truth and humanity die together. The men are served a hot dinner that evening.

At the opposing pole is the French doctor whose initial assessment that Ben Jalloun was “not fit for service” almost allowed him to escape the “military conscription” which disguised his brutal detention. Though Ben Jalloun considers him naïve to the camp’s murderous regime, when his health is later imperilled, the same doctor arranges a transfer to the Mohammed V hospital in Rabat. “I tell him about the ill treatment and abuse that victimized us. He lowers his voice: ‘I know.’” The move saved his life and cemented his future as a writer: his first verses were written with pencil begged from the hospital staff on prescription forms.

The camp is a crucible of society, a place where the complex legacy of French colonial occupation intersects with Moroccan class divisions. Ben Jelloun’s education – first at Koranic school, then the French lycée – opened doors for him; intellectual, cultural and practical. Knowing French later became his escape passport out of Morocco. By contrast, his gaolers are, like his surroundings, “utterly devoid of any culture or intelligence”. They have been schooled in the methods of General Oufkir, the man in charge of the treatment of political prisoners, who was himself trained by French experts in “the most depraved techniques of torture,” during the war in Indochina. The camp itself is a brutal colonial leftover.

Other bonds defy easy categorisation. Ben Jelloun befriends Salah, a shepherd from Beni Mallal arrested for selling sheep without a permit during el-Kébir. Salah is astonished that the other prisoners were arrested for merely demonstrating and avers the camp’s conditions are better than his hut. The educated lieutenants brought in to lecture on military matters speak French “correctly” but are as terrified by the camp’s regime and the prospect of dying in combat as the prisoners.

What could compel men to act in this way, participate in such brutality? For some, like Akka and Ababou, it is sadism, pure and simple. For others, the reasons are more complicated. Has the French doctor been sent to this god-forsaken camp as a form of punishment? For the junior soldiers under Akka and Ababou, the conditions are hardly ideal either.

It is the mechanisms of Ben Jelloun’s release that shed most light on how complicity and courageous acts can coexist. The camp doctor, Dr Noury, who came from a poor family in the north of Morocco, became an army doctor because “only the army offered him any financial aid for his medical studies.” Though part of the regime, it is his word to political higher-ups that allows the Palace to get wind of the detainees’ conditions. And while the eventual release of the prisoners could be characterised as either horror at a rogue officer’s regime of terror, or mere pragmatism (“now that we have suffered so much mistreatment, it would be hard to keep completely quiet about how His Majesty’s army deals with the young people of our nation”), the end result is that those who survived (eventually) return to their homes.

The experience leaves scars. Ben Jelloun admits they may heal but will never disappear, as a chance meeting at the conclusion suggests. Against his own, miraculously intact faith in human nature is stacked “a deep racism between those of the South, the Amazigh, and those of the North, the Rif; between the people of the cities and those of the countryside, between those who can read and write and those who jabber in anger.” What he has gained is insight into how fear, mistrust and division are the crudest tools of raw power.

It’s Sisyphus’s hell made real

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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